Dan Carter too clever for his inquisitors

All the best tens are blessed with great vision so Dan Carter knows a loaded question and its likely consequences when he sees one.

It’s lobbed in after a ream of queries on the British and Irish Lions and the mountainous challenge they face in knitting together a side and a squad capable of meeting the world champions on anything like equal terms come the first of three Tests, in Auckland, on Saturday week.

So, Dan, how many of these Lions would get on the All Blacks 15?

Cue the smile that sold everything from men’s underwear to air conditioners.

“Yeah … you’re asking a very biased All Black on that one. I can see the headline there already. You’re setting me up here! Emm … I mean, there’s some quality players in that Lions squad but … emm … I have to dig myself out of a hole here. I can see the headline back in New Zealand!”

Time, as it always is at these sort of gigs, is at a premium so someone else moves the conversation on. But Carter’s discomfort when asked such an obvious teaser is proof of the task facing Warren Gatland’s side and the ground they have to make up.

Performances have ranged from punchy to patchy to poor and among the chief concerns for the tourists as they close in on Saturday’s date with the Maoris is the reality that their back line has yet to click with question marks sitting like dead weights over most of the starting spots.

Conor Murray must be close to a certainty to get the nod at scrum-half but every other jersey from 10 through to 15 is up for debate and the choice of out-half is symptomatic of the decisions Gatland must make in terms of both personnel and strategy.

Carter doesn’t demur when it is put to him that Owen Farrell has been the best player, bar none, in Europe this last year or two. And Ronan O’Gara admits that he expected the Saracen to start the Tests only for his costly penalty miss in the defeat to the Highlanders on Tuesday to sow seeds of doubt.

Yet both legendary out-halves remain uncertain as to whether the Englishman or the Irishman should, or will, be given the nod. And as for the suggestion that they could form a 10-12 axis for the Tests? Well, that’s one that leaves O’Gara uneasy and Carter uncertain.

“I don’t see how he can start the two of them in a Test match,” said O’Gara. “It’s a good idea maybe with 30 minutes to go but starting Johnny at ten means playing Farrell at 12. Physically, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the first 30 minutes against Sonny Bill Williams or whoever they play in the centre.

“I think they are two 10s to be honest. Farrell plays his best rugby at 10. He’s an exceptional player when he has full control. When he’s at 12 it’s just a little bit harder… You’re looking for him to win the gain-line. That’s not his game.”

Carter offered much the same theory, regardless of the fact that he was impressed with their double act against the Crusaders, and backed his argument up on the basis that such a tandem would need the solidity of “a big, strong guaranteed number one midfielder”.

And he hasn’t seen any evidence of that yet.

Yet there have been positives for the Lions.

Carter stresses the fact that it is far too early to judge the 2017 touring party after just four games and both have been impressed by their defence, particularly when holding the previously destructive Crusaders to just three points in Christchurch last weekend.

Yet, Carter stresses the point that defence alone won’t beat the hosts and that brings the debate full circle. All the way back to a back line that has looked disjointed at times and one that has fluffed its lines time and again when opportunity has knocked.

They are clearly missing an X-factor.

“Yeah, they’re missing a Brian O’Driscoll,” said O’Gara, “without a shadow of a doubt. Jonathan Davies is a really, really good player but he can’t score tries like O’Driscoll could. The most exciting back looks like Jonathan Joseph to me. Will he play? I don’t think so.”

The dilemmas facing Gatland are obvious when O’Gara ponders aloud on likely backs.

He name-checks Farrell, Ben Te’o, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies, Jonathan Joseph, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson but, like Carter, he hasn’t spied an alpha male in the midfield so far.

You consider all that and it’s a short step to the conclusion that maybe ‘Warrenball’ is the way to go.

The Lions will never outdo the All Blacks for skill, after all, and Gatland has won English Premierships, Heineken Cups and Grand Slams with a brand of rugby which seems tailor-made for a scratch European team touring New Zealand in deepest winter.

Maybe it’s a tag they should embrace rather than disown.

“Completely,” says O’Gara. “It’s easy for us. We’re not in the bubble down there. It’s all consuming and they do annoy you. You get rattled very quickly by it. He’s been out of it 20 years. Be comfortable in who you are. The Test team will be good.

“You only need 23 good players for the Test team because that is all anyone can remember: The Test teams. If Sean O’Brien can get through the Test series injury-free, the two second-rows and the front-rows, if they can have a big campaign, I think it is possible.”


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